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Commentary: Minnesota’s ‘Best of the Above’ and the Clean Power Plan

Mike Bull is director of policy and communications at the Center for Energy and Environment.

Minnesota is a purple state politically, and has had a divided government 22 of the past 25 years. We are also very proud and protective of our natural resources. As a result, energy policy here needs to be balanced, broadly supported, and increasingly clean.

Much of Minnesota’s strong energy policy framework was put into place under the governor that I served, Republican Tim Pawlenty. During his two terms (2003–2011), Governor Pawlenty proposed a number of clean energy initiatives that were worked on and worked out through a seemingly endless number of stakeholder discussions, then enacted by a Democratic-controlled legislature, usually on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis.

Minnesota’s bipartisan clean energy framework has served the state exceptionally well. To paraphrase Governor Pawlenty, Minnesota’s clean energy policy is a “win-win-win-win” — good for customers, good for the state economy, good for our air and water resources, and good for Minnesota’s energy independence.

We have had some tremendous successes under this framework:

  • We’ve saved Minnesotans over $6 billion and made our economy stronger through some of the best and lowest-cost energy efficiency programs in the nation;
  • We’ve installed over 3,600 megawatts of low-cost wind energy to serve Minnesotans, driving almost $6 billion in investments to Minnesota and our neighbors;
  • We’ve reduced coal generation to under 50% of energy production, keeping significant amounts of mercury and other pollutants out of our lakes, streams, and air; and
  • We’ve driven CO2 emissions to almost 20% below the state’s 2005 baseline.
  • Just last Friday, Xcel Energy announced plans to accelerate retirement of two coal units at the Sherburne County Generation Station in 2023 and 2026, continuing to lead the region and the nation toward a cleaner, more diverse power supply.

It’s also important to note that the number of Minnesotans employed in the clean energy sector has nearly doubled since 2000 — from 8,600 in 2000 to 15,300 in 2014. Two out of every three clean energy jobs are in energy efficiency.

What’s more, because of our excellent policy and regulatory framework, and frankly some terrific utilities, we’ve been able to do all this while keeping electricity costs well below the national average and among the lowest in the region.

With a well-balanced electricity portfolio that’s becoming increasingly clean over time, Minnesota is very well positioned to comply with the Clean Power Plan, a newly issued EPA rule designed to reduce carbon emissions from fossil fuel generation stations.

Minnesota’s electricity strategies step beyond the “all of the above” approach employed by some states. Our “BEST of the above” approach demonstrates we care as much about the impacts of energy policies on customers as on natural resources:

  • We seek to capture all cost-effective energy efficiency opportunities, reducing overall system costs and empowering customers to control their own energy bills;
  • We deploy an increasing amount of homegrown wind and solar resources as the costs of those resources continue to drop dramatically. (It may surprise some that wind energy is the most cost-effective electricity resource available to Minnesota, after energy efficiency.); and
  • We continue to rely on traditional resources like nuclear, coal, hydropower, and natural gas as necessary to maintain reliability and affordability, and to integrate variable wind and solar resources.

Our state’s “best of the above” approach delivers on all four of Governor Pawlenty’s “win-win-win-wins”:

  1. Minnesota’s focus on affordability and cost-effectiveness is good for customers.
  2. Keeping electricity costs in check while growing the number of clean energy jobs is good for the state economy.
  3. Keeping mercury, carbon, and other pollutants out of our lakes, streams, and air is good for our environment.
  4. Increasing our use of homegrown energy resources is good for Minnesota’s energy independence.

The federal Clean Power Plan will be the subject of much debate and discussion over the next few years. In the meantime, as it has done for years, Minnesota will continue to chart its own path on clean energy — putting us well on our way toward compliance with the new rule.

Mike Bull is director of policy and communications at the Center for Energy and Environment, a nonprofit organization that promotes energy efficiency to strengthen the economy while improving the environment. Bull also served as senior policy adviser to Governor Tim Pawlenty.

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